Sunday, 7 February 2016

Research in Ethiopia shows that emotional needs are indeed crucial for survival

In the new, expanded edition of Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking, published in 2013, the authors state:
The law of all living organisms is that, to survive, they must take nourishment from the environment so that they can continually maintain and rebuild themselves. Like all animals, we need air to breathe, water to drink, nutritious food and sufficient amounts of the right quality of sleep. These physical needs are easily apparent because, if they are not met, we quickly die - as many people sadly do in those parts of the world where clean water is scarce and food in short supply...

Everyone can accept that these basic physical needs should be met and that they are 'givens'. But psychologists throughout the ages have also determined there are other nutritional needs, emotional rather than physical, which are equally crucial for our wellbeing - and sometimes, even for survival too.
The final point about emotional needs being crucial for survival may seem hard to believe at first, but further evidence from Dr. Alessandro Conticini's 2009 intervention in Ethiopia backs this up, and raises some interesting questions.
Research has shown that the survival rate of malnourished children during food crises critically depends not just on the availability of appropriate therapeutic food, but also on the emotional and physical stimulations available for both the child and the caregiver (usually the mother). Studies have shown that the combined use of emergency nutrition support and emotional stimulation techniques provides for lower malnutrition rates, a higher rate of child survival, and quicker recovery from malnutrition.
Conticini's intervention is neatly summarised in this review by Helen Epstein for The New York Review of Books: 
In 2009, Conticini introduced a program to help mothers reconnect with their sick children. In Ethiopia, parents don’t traditionally play with babies or talk to them, and childcare tends to be limited to feeding and cleaning, but Conticini trained community nurses to teach the mothers how to make toys out of sticks, cloth, discarded toothpaste boxes, whatever they could find. A field trial of the program is underway, but when I interviewed mothers who had been through it a few years ago, many told me that the simple act of playing and laughing together had restored their children’s appetite and saved their lives. “I’d prepared the funeral shroud and told the church that he would be buried soon,” said one mother of the healthy toddler playing beside her. “Now I can’t get enough of him. I can’t quite believe he’s alive.” 
This is a really interesting and heartening discovery. It seems that these malnourished children needed attention and emotional connection with their mothers before the need for food would kick in.

But why, from an evolutionary point of view, would this be? Feeling our way into this situation for a moment, might emotional neglect by our primary care giver be interpreted as a signal that we are not valued or needed by our group, perhaps switching on Brodmann area 25 (the brain's depression gate) causing us to give up, and get it over with sooner rather than later?

Whatever the reason one message is clear: human beings are born with a constellation of interconnecting needs, and we need to attend to all (or at least more) of them if we are to survive and thrive.

1 comment:

  1. Someone has to play with the babies -- or there's no culture, no tradition that can be dependably carried to them. I'd expect to see galloping mass ADD, ie a population with little emotional control and little control of their own attention -- or seriously delayed (& unstable) development of these things. That doesn't sound like any of the actual Ethiopians I've seen here in the US.

    So, who traditionally does this in that culture? I'm guessing here... Other relatives would be available in normal circumstances? -- not so much so when external forces drive extended families apart, impose a state of 'everyone for itself'?